The confusing double standard between indie and “normal” publishing (as it pertains to book cover design)

Something interesting I thought I would bring up, because I encounter it often in my work with indie and self-publishing authors.

If you do a search for “best cover designs”, you’ll routinely see covers that designers love – like on this page.

And they are very clever, very clean and simple, usually “flat” or “retro” styled, because it’s cool to be a young hipster and those old-fashioned montage styles are so good they’re almost ugly (so they can be “sarcastically” appreciated).

But those covers are made by designers for designers, and often made to cover “high brow” books for very educated, elite readers who have similar design tastes.

Yes they are awesome. But they probably won’t help you sell your book.

Unless you wrote a literary fiction that’s powerful and moving and deep and tragic. And even if you did, you’re going to have a much harder time selling it and finding readers than if you wrote a more popular genre. For most self-publishing/indie authors, a minimalist, simple, clean, clever book cover design is not going to be powerful enough.

(For non-fiction, nevermind everything I’m saying. Non-fiction can and should be clean and simple and stylish…depending on the genre… but it wouldn’t hurt to be a little bolder and louder than you think you need to be with non-fiction also). Non-fiction covers appeal to the brain, so it’s OK to be clever and witty.

But fiction covers appeal to the heart – you need to make an immediate emotional connection. Extremely few of book designers’ favorite covers make as powerful an impact as you will need. Plus, it’s very easy to try to do something minimalist and simple, but screw it up.

A big, colorful picture may be more effective than a very simple cover with mediocre text.

It may work for huge best-selling authors or classic books, but for the indie who’s fighting for readers, attention and visibility, the cover is your advertising banner – you have a tiny little box that is going to show up as readers scroll through hundreds of books, and you have less than a second for that tiny box to convey your book’s worth.

Seriously – if an indie author put out a cover like “Incendiary” below, I’d say they could probably boost sales by redoing the cover. It’s not awful, it looks professional, and the strong color contrast works… but it’s boring. Luckily it has a fiery title and an awesome review (but few readers are going to slow down enough to read it.) But mostly, it’s intentionally appealing to a smaller readership – a readership who “gets” this kind of bizarre, contemporary design style. It’s broadcasting itself as too cool, and too good, to try to sell itself with an emotive picture or any subject. Upside down skylines have been done. The bright yellow gradient is new but I don’t love it. (The one on the left is a recent one I made, based off the Odd Thomas covers, just to compare).


Which is probably why Chris and his publishers don’t seem to know what they’re doing with this cover.

I couldn’t even FIND that cover one Amazon – it’s been replaced by one of three others. Which means, while it may win points with designers for being “cool” – it’s not connecting with readers, and not selling.

So we have these. The matchstick is clever but looks like a non-fiction, no emotional triggers there. I don’t like the boy and the balloon, it seems weak.

What seems to be the current series cover is the blue one, which is fun but looks like a kid’s book.

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I understand they are using different covers per nation, to appeal to local tastes, but I think a novel as powerful as this could have been done much better.

(Of course as long as the cover looks professionally designed, readers will pause for you, and it’s very true I like the covers that I like – but some readers may want something less showy). And the cover only gets your foot in the door, you still have to win them over with an amazing story…

But in general, if you’re self-publishing, you need to be twice as good.

About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me

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